Painting En Plein Air on Cornwall’s Rugged North Coast

I’ve lost count of how long me and my friend, Stephie, have been promising ourselves a painting session on the Cornish coast. With the amazing summer weather and golden evenings, we headed to Chapel Porth to indulge in some art.

chapel porth beach in Cornwall in the sunshine

En plein air painting, is the posh way of saying, “painting in the open air”. It’s actually a wonderful and relaxing thing to do; I definitely find it more freeing compared to painting in my studio.

I’ve only embarked on en plein air painting once before when learning to paint with the Newlyn School of Art. I wanted to go again and knew my friend, Stephie (who is such a good artist!), would love it.

We decided to go somewhere different but definitely wanted to be on the coast. We opted Chapel Porth beach as we both like it there and it wasn’t too far away. As we were meeting at the end of the day, we needed to make the most of the evening light rather than spend a long time driving to a destination further away.

As you can see by the photos, it didn’t disappoint!

We each brought different materials with us to use. Stephie had her pastels, charcoal and ink and I took my new watercolours, markers and pencils. It was so relaxing taking in the Cornish scenery, listening to the waves breaking and hearing other people having fun in the sea.

people on the shoreline at golden hour in Cornwall
Penny Sherwood and Stephanie Boon sitting on a beach plein air painting
A woman in a baseball cap painting en plein air on the beach in Cornwall

I last used watercolours about 15 years ago and I didn’t feel they were for me. Using them en plein air painting, felt quite liberating. I found I was able to go with the flow more. I’m generally becoming more curious about the marks I make. With this comes a growing tendency to trust the intuitive process and be less focused on things being right or exact. I find sketching and studies are great for this.

Stephie did some incredible shapes and marks of the cliffs with her pastels. En plein air painting is challenging. The conditions can change, the light inevitably alters, changing shadows and shapes. This was particularly the case for us as the sun was setting. It’s all part of learning to paint outside and trying to capture what we observe and take in.

I completed 3 studies in the end. Painting en plein air, I worked quickly, maybe more reactive than usual. Swift sketches in pencil, then adding maker pen and watercolour to different parts. I found myself taking interest in where the paint went on the page and just seeing what happened.

a hand holding a sketchbook with a watercolour beach study
a sketchbook on a pink check rug with a watercolour sketch of the cliff and sea

My first 2 studies were of the cliffs that hug Chapel Porth beach. The tide was coming in but the rocks were exposed. There was some interesting shapes and shadows to capture.

I noticed Stephie had started sketching people. Despite drawing faces all the time when younger, I hadn’t thought of doing this on busy Chapel Porth. I think it’s because I seldom paint people now. I decided to follow suit and add some of the swimmers and people wave jumping to my final attempt. It’s good to try something different!

a partly painted en plein air sketch of the beach resting on crossed legs
a sketchbook held in the air with a watercolour painting of 2 people on the beach

En plein air painting is incredibly relaxing! I tend not to worry about people looking or watching; one man came over and asked what we were doing. Time goes quickly and it’s a wonderful way to spend a summer’s evening.

Once the art was finished, me and Stephie popped on our bathers and headed into the sea. It was glorious. The waves were big and we messed about for a while before heading home.

If you’d like to walk or run the coast path near Chapel Porth, you’d probably like this 5k route that includes neighbouring Porthtowan.

Stephie has her own website, 10 Mile Hike, documenting her hikes in Cornwall and beyond. She shares some of her artwork from her walks too.

Author: plbedford

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